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What are the 5 writs?

The writ of habeas corpus, quo warranto, mandamus, procedendo, and certiorari are 5 important legal writs that serve distinct purposes in the justice system. These writs act as court orders that require someone to take, or refrain from taking, a certain action. Understanding what each of these writs entail can provide insight into how courts function.

What is a Writ?

A writ is a formal, written court order or directive that requires the recipient to either do or not do something specific. Writs are issued by courts and directed to government agencies, officials, corporations, or individuals. They provide a legal means for one party to take action against another.

There are both common law writs, which originated under English law, and statutory writs, which are created by legislative statutes. The 5 major common law writs are habeas corpus, quo warranto, mandamus, procedendo, and certiorari. These writs serve important purposes in the judicial system.

Habeas Corpus

A writ of habeas corpus is an order requiring that a detained person be brought before a court to determine if the person’s detention is lawful. Habeas corpus, which means “you shall have the body” in Latin, serves as an important safeguard against illegal imprisonment.

If a person believes they are being wrongfully detained, they can petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Once issued, the writ requires the detaining authority to bring the prisoner to court and present a valid legal basis for the detention. If the detention is found to be unlawful, the prisoner must be set free.

The right of habeas corpus is enshrined in Article 1, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution, which states: “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”

Key Points on Habeas Corpus

  • Requires a detained person be brought to court to determine if the detention is lawful
  • Prevents illegal and indefinite imprisonment
  • Can be requested by prisoner or on prisoner’s behalf
  • Guaranteed under U.S. Constitution

Quo Warranto

A writ of quo warranto is an order requiring the recipient to show by what warrant or authority they are exercising a certain right, power, or office. Quo warranto, meaning “by what warrant” in Latin, allows courts to review whether a governmental office or franchise was properly obtained.

For instance, a quo warranto writ may be issued to determine if an elected official meets all legal eligibility requirements for the office they hold. Or it could be used to challenge whether a corporation is legally entitled to a monopoly franchise it was granted. By requiring the recipient to validate their authority, quo warranto serves as a check against abuse of power.

Key Points on Quo Warranto

  • Requires recipient to demonstrate by what authority they hold an office or right
  • Reviews whether a position was properly obtained
  • Checks against abuse of power
  • Can be requested by courts or prosecutors


A writ of mandamus is an order compelling a government agency, public official, corporation, or lower court to perform a specific legal duty owed to the petitioner. Mandamus, meaning “we command” in Latin, provides a remedy when an office holder fails to fulfill required actions.

For example, mandamus could force a government office to consider an application it had improperly delayed or require a judge to render a decision on a pending matter. It provides courts with oversight to ensure legal rights and duties are upheld, acting as a “check” on the failure to act.

Key Points on Mandamus

  • Compels performance of a public legal duty
  • Issued when an office holder fails to act
  • Provides courts with oversight over inaction
  • Can be requested by individuals or the government


A writ of procedendo orders a lower court to proceed with a case it had improperly delayed or stopped. Procedendo, meaning “you shall proceed” in Latin, helps higher courts keep control over lower courts and prevent unjustified inaction.

If a lower court refuses to hear a case without a lawful reason, a higher court can issue a writ of procedendo requiring the lower court to move forward. This allows higher courts to prevent unreasonable delays and enforce their jurisdiction when needed.

Key Points on Procedendo

  • Directs a lower court to proceed with a case
  • Issued when a lower court delays without cause
  • Allows higher courts to control lower courts
  • Can be requested by parties in a stalled case


A writ of certiorari is an order directing a lower court to deliver the record of a case to a higher court so that it can be reviewed. Certiorari, meaning “to be more fully informed” in Latin, provides oversight allowing higher courts to determine if a lower court acted appropriately.

Supreme courts and appellate courts can use writs of certiorari to review decisions in lower courts. Through certiorari, the higher courts can identify errors, abuses of discretion, or constitutional issues that need to be addressed. This allows the legal system to regulate itself and maintain uniform standards.

Key Points on Certiorari

  • Directs lower court to deliver case record for review
  • Allows higher courts to oversee lower courts
  • Enables review of decisions for errors or issues
  • Can be requested by parties unsatisfied with a ruling

Comparisons Between the 5 Major Writs

While habeas corpus, quo warranto, mandamus, procedendo, and certiorari serve distinct purposes, they share some key similarities. All are court orders commanding the recipient to take, or refrain from taking, certain actions. They provide oversight and remedies when proper legal process is not followed.

Writ Purpose Requestor
Habeas Corpus Review legality of detention Prisoner
Quo Warranto Question authority for office/right Courts/Prosecutors
Mandamus Compel public official to act Individuals/Government
Procedendo Order lower court to proceed Litigants
Certiorari Require case record for review Litigants

While technical in nature, these writs give both courts and individuals important tools to ensure the legal system functions properly. They uphold rights, compel action, and enable oversight when the law is not followed correctly. As ancient common law mechanisms, they remain vitally relevant in the modern American judicial system.

Famous Historical Uses of Writs

The 5 major writs have been invoked in many famous cases throughout history. Some momentous examples include:

  • Habeas corpus – Used to free the slaves in Somerset v. Stewart (1772), helping establish that slavery was not supported by English common law
  • Quo warranto – Used to order Edward I to show by what authority he claimed the right to rule Wales in The Prince’s Case (1302)
  • Mandamus – Used to order President Nixon to release the Watergate tapes in U.S. v. Nixon (1974)
  • Procedendo – Used by William Penn to force the Court of Common Pleas to proceed with his trial on charges of unlawful assembly (1670)
  • Certiorari – Used to bring several famous civil rights cases to the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

These and countless other cases demonstrate how writs have been used throughout history to uphold justice and check abuses of power.

How to File for a Writ

While the specific procedures vary by jurisdiction, there is generally a common process for filing for a writ:

  1. Research requirements for the specific writ you need
  2. Prepare a petition detailing the facts of your case and request for the writ
  3. File the petition with the appropriate court and serve other parties
  4. The court reviews the petition and issues a decision
  5. If granted, the writ is served on the appropriate party/parties
  6. The court oversees the recipient’s compliance with the writ

Those seeking a writ should consult with an attorney to ensure proper procedures are followed. There are often strict eligibility requirements, filing deadlines, and specific forms to be used. Procedural rules must be closely adhered to when applying for writs.


Habeas corpus, quo warranto, mandamus, procedendo, and certiorari constitute the 5 major common law writs that allow courts to compel or prohibit specific actions. These extraordinary remedies serve vital functions such as freeing unjustly detained prisoners, reviewing improper governmental acts, compelling public officials to fulfill duties, and enabling higher court oversight of lower courts.

The enduring presence of these ancient writs underscores their importance as tools to regulate government power and ensure the fair administration of justice. When properly utilized, they promote accountability, transparency, and adherence to the rule of law.